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Contested Child Custody

Child custody cases can be financially and emotionally draining for all parties involved, especially the children. In some cases, when parents can’t agree to a joint custody arrangement, the court may order a forensic custody evaluation to help determine what’s in the best interest of the child (or children). If your child is too young to speak for themselves, the court may appoint a guardian ad litem to assess their feelings and interpret their best interests. Avoiding a hotly contested child custody case prevents emotional wear and tear on all parties involved. Still, sometimes, a custody case becomes highly litigious.

Interpreting a Child’s Needs

A child custody evaluation can be very stressful for a child, so it’s crucial to ensure they feel supported and comfortable throughout the process. It’s also important to be honest and transparent with your child about the evaluation, so they understand why it’s necessary and what they can expect.

In highly disputed custody cases, a family court judge may order a forensic child custody evaluation to determine their needs through a comprehensive assessment. This assessment considers the child’s needs, preferences, and relationship with each parent and is typically conducted by a mental health professional trained in child psychology and appointed by the court.


The selected evaluator interviews the child, parents, and other individuals central to the child’s life, including teachers, counselors, or doctors. The evaluator also closely reviews relevant school and medical records. The evaluator’s report is evidenced in the court case to help the judge determine custody arrangements. In conjunction with the forensic child custody evaluation, the judge also considers any other relevant factors, which may include:

  • Each parent’s ability to care for the child
  • The child’s relationship with each parent
  • Any allegations of child abuse or neglect
  • Any history of parental substance abuse

The forensic child custody evaluation process can positively and negatively affect a child’s emotional well-being. Therefore, parents and mental health professionals involved in the evaluation must prioritize the child’s well-being, ensuring they feel supported and heard.

Forensic Evaluation

The forensic evaluation intends to identify the child’s best interest and who and what best facilitates these needs. The forensic evaluator interviews the child, each parent, and other significant individuals in the child’s life. They may also observe the child’s interaction with each parent before writing a report summarizing their findings and recommendations.

These recommendations can include parenting time schedules, communication protocols between the parents, and other issues relating to the child’s well-being. The court can use the forensic evaluator’s report as one factor in making a custody determination but is not bound by the evaluator’s recommendations. The ultimate decision by the court judge is based on the child’s best interests, considering all relevant factors.

Positive and Negative Effects on the Child

A forensic evaluation can have positive and negative effects on the child.

Positive Effects:

  • If the evaluator conducts the inquiries fairly and thoroughly, it can lead to a custody arrangement in the child’s best interests, providing them stability and security.
  • The evaluation may uncover previously unknown issues, such as emotional or developmental concerns, that can be addressed through appropriate interventions.
  • The child may feel heard and validated by the evaluator and the court as their needs and preferences become prioritized.

Negative Effects:

  • The evaluation process can cause stress and overwhelm a child as interviews include introductions to strangers, and they may feel pressure to choose between parents.
  • The child may feel put in the middle of a parental conflict, which can cause feelings of confusion or guilt.
  • The child may experience negative criticism or comments about one or both parents, potentially damaging that relationship.
  • The child may have to adjust to a new schedule or living situation, disrupting their current routine and causing additional stress.

Parent Preparation for Forensic Evaluation

While a great deal of forensic child custody evaluation is not in the hands of parents, there are important steps to take. Working closely with a family law attorney is crucial to ensure a parent is fully prepared for their role in the evaluation process. Some of the ways a family law attorney can help a parent include:

·       Understand the Evaluation Process

The family lawyer can explain the evaluation process, including what to expect and how to prepare. Each stage of the evaluation process requires guidance on how to respond to the evaluator’s questions.

·       Provide Necessary Documents

Gathering all relevant documents, such as medical and school records and any prior legal documents relating to custody or parenting time for presentation, is crucial. Your family attorney will understand which documents are necessary.

·       Honesty and Cooperation

An evaluator can usually assess the truth of a custody situation. Parents should communicate honestly and cooperate by being on time for appointments, respecting the evaluator, providing accurate information, and refraining from speaking negatively about the other parent or making false statements.

·       Focus on the Child’s Best Interests

The parent must present the child’s best interests during the evaluation process, including a willingness to work with the other parent to create a parenting plan that meets the child’s needs.

·       Consider Mediation First

If both parents are willing, the family law lawyer can facilitate mediation sessions to resolve outstanding issues and agree on custody and parenting time arrangements. Mediation avoids the need for a formal evaluation and reduces the stress and expense of a custody dispute.

Working closely with a family law attorney will ensure a parent is prepared for a child custody case. They can identify issues and concerns that may impact the custody determination, such as substance abuse, mental health issues, or allegations of abuse or neglect. They can review the evaluator’s report and guide responses to recommendations or conclusions.

The Family Dynamic

Hostility between parents doesn’t serve the well-being of a child. Remember that when children are involved, family divorce typically doesn’t solve all the problems; it just changes them. The goal is to proactively forge a harmonious child custody arrangement for the child’s benefit. A family court judge’s priority in custody cases is always the child’s best interest. A family law attorney can keep your efforts in a contested child custody case focused on providing the best outcome for your child.

This article summarizes aspects of family law. It is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice, please contact our Houston office today at (713) 582-5088 or schedule a consultation.

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